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Archive for October, 2017

When is a 58 not a 58?

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

This 59 has a T7280 FON from 58 and the serial number A30518 which is June of 59.

When it’s a 59, of course. Guitars that fall on the cusp of a new year are often tricky to describe. We are all obsessed with what year our guitar is from. In fact I get more emails about dating these guitars than for any other reason. they can be hard enough to date without the year end confusion that Gibson’s seem to cause. During those years, there wasn’t really a “model year”. Gibson didn’t tout the “new 1959” lineup but we are conditioned to expect exactly that thanks to the automobile industry. They touted new models but not the new model year probably because guitars, especially higher priced guitars, often didn’t sell during the year they were built. I’ve found lots of guitars with a sales receipt dated a year or even two years later than the serial number indicates.

From 1958 to 1961, Gibson used two numbering systems. The factory order number (FON) which was generally stamped in black ink on the inside of the guitar (often twice-once on the back of the top and once on the inside of the back. And there was the serial number stamped or written (usually stamped during this period) on the orange label. No serial on the back of the headstock until 61. There is little confusion when the two indicate the same year but when they don’t, it can give you a headache. When I date a guitar, I consider a few factors: The serial number carries the most weight-that indicates the year the guitar was shipped. The factory order number indicates the year the build was started but not necessarily completed. And finally, the features of the guitar (dot markers, long guard, bonnet knobs, etc.). It’s not surprising that year end builds would get a following year serial number. I usually mention that in my listings-I would describe a 60 with a 59 FON as exactly that. I’ve covered this situation in earlier posts but there is an anomaly that occurred in the late Spring to early Summer of 1959.

The changes that were made in early 59 are quantifiable. The neck angle increased and the thickness of the top increased. These changes addressed some problems the 58’s were having. An early 59 with a 58 FON is common. I usually just call them 59’s. But what about a mid year 59 that has a 58 FON? How did that happen? Was there a rack of leftover builds that got put aside due to complaints about top cracks in the thin tops? So far, I’ve had seven ES-335’s with mid year serial numbers that have 58 FONs. The earliest is A30247 (probably late May) and the latest is A30659 (mid July). Most are from one of two racks-T7303 and T7304 both late 58 racks. Two, including the one pictured, are from earlier racks. The rack number is not really of interest here but the year designated by the letter “T” is. That’s a 58 build.

So, are these “not-on-the-cusp” 59’s really 58’s? Well, yes and no. Here’s why. It’s pretty clear from the thin tops and the big round necks that the bodies and necks were fabricated in 58. The increased neck angle would have already been in place by late 58. But many of them have double white or zebra pickups which didn’t exist in 58-they were the result of a shortage of the black plastic used to make the bobbins in 59. They also have 59 pot codes. So, we can assume that the assembly of the finished guitar occurred in 1959. But, this is Gibson and nothing is totally logical. Another change occurred in 1958 to 59. The Kluson tuners went from patent applied to patent number (and they changed the formulation of the plastic). Some of these 58/59 ES-335’s got 58tuners and some got 59. Go figure.

I wasn’t there so all of this is speculation. They could have simply been leftover tops and backs that were already stamped but I doubt it. The neck and neck angle just shouts late 58. But I still call them 59’s probably in part because everybody wants 59’s anyway but also because of the 6 month discrepancy between the FON and the serial. The best I can do is describe it as a 59 with a 58 FON and call it a day. There is good news amid the confusion, however. These are some of the best of the best. The thin tops are more fragile and prone to cracking, to be sure. But they are also more resonant. The necks are big and rounded-the baseball bats we all know and love. The neck angle allows for plenty of height adjustment at the bridge unlike the earlier 58’s where the bridge sits on the top of the guitar. So, look for these and ask about the FON when you buy a 59, especially one in the above mentioned serial number range. It might be an exceptional one.

The “T” means 58. The rack numbers are sequential (supposedly) and the last digits are the rank-what number the guitar was in the 35 unit (more or less) rack. T7280-xx is pretty late in 1958 but the guitar didn’t ship until June of 59. No idea why.

 

 

Burning Question

Friday, October 13th, 2017

Mid 60’s Kay Value Leader. Pretty cool looking and old enough but is it vintage or just old?

A guy came into my shop today and said he had a question. “OK, shoot”, I said. He said, “What is a vintage guitar?”

To be honest, no one has ever asked me that before and I answered without giving it any thought at all. “It’s old. It’s used.” That boils it down to its essence without a hint of explanation as to any difference between an old, used guitar and a “vintage” one. Is “vintage” a particular age? Is it a particular brand? Value? Is “collectible” the same as “vintage”? This is going to require some thought and more than a little finessing, I think.

Let’s look at three old guitars. A 1963 Gibson ES-335, a 1983 Zemaitis Custom and a 1963 Kay Value Leader. All three are old. All three are used. I would argue that all three are collectible. The differences? The Gibson is expensive at around $20,000 as is the Zemaitis at around $25000. The Kay is relatively cheap at around $600. But are they all “vintage” guitars? I would argue that “vintage guitar” is something of a contrivance cooked by the guitar community to differentiate old guitars that are highly sought after and highly regarded from those that are simply old. My basis for that is the word vintage itself. It refers, of course, to a bottle of wine. In general, it refers to a wine from a particular year. But there are good vintages and bad vintages. But when most folks refer to vintage anything, they are considering it a good thing. OK, that makes sense but in applying it to guitars, I suppose that quality is the deciding factor and that, as in wine, is pretty subjective stuff.

Most decent wine tastes pretty much the same to me. It tastes better than cheap wine which generally tastes pretty awful to me. The subtle distinctions are, however, lost on me. I couldn’t tell a rare  64 Chateau Petrus at $10,000 from an easily available high end 2009 Napa Cabernet at $200.   And I don’t like white wine at all, so I’m not much of a judge of quality for half of the wines out there. Guitars, however, are not all the same to me. Interestingly, age, desirability and quality are not necessarily  factors in the value of used guitars.

Let’s consider age first. I’ve heard arguments on the various guitar forums about the “cutoff” for vintage. Many consider guitars from the 80’s to be too new to be vintage. So, what is that 80’s Zemaitis? Simply a used guitar? I think not. Is an 80’s 335 vintage? How about an 80’s BC Rich? And that 1963 Kay Value Leader? It’s from the 60’s which is considered vintage by pretty much everybody but maybe the quality of the Kay isn’t up to snuff. Maybe it’s the vinegar or rotgut in the mix here. Is a Kay Value Leader a vintage guitar and if it isn’t what is it? Just an old guitar? Nobody will argue that the 335 from 63 isn’t vintage. It’s got the age, the quality and the desirability to be considered by nearly everyone as vintage. But look at 70’s Gibson’s and Fenders. We all know the quality of these brands suffered in the 70’s. In fact, many believe the vintage market was created because the 70’s guitars were so inferior when compared to those from the 50’s and 60’s. So, age is part of it but certainly not all of it.

Quality is certainly a factor but there are plenty of old guitars that are of dubious quality and plenty of non newer that are wonderful. So, let’s assume vintage has to be high quality and old. How old? I don’t know. I could pick a year and get a good argument pro and con for any given year. Thirty years old? That makes an 87 vintage. That doesn’t seem right. Forty? Fifty? The problem is that the really great stuff is more like 60 years old. If I had to pick a cutoff  year, it would probably be 1969. That coincides with Gibson being sold and the quality starting its downhill slide. I would argue that Fender, even though it was sold in 65, didn’t really go too far downhill until 1972 or so (three bolt Strat). Brands like Martin and Guild didn’t suffer much, if at all,  in the 70’s at all but 70’s guitars seem to be tarred with the same brush and considered less desirable than 60’s guitars. But something like an 80’s Zemaitis throws that out the window. Hmm.

So that leaves desirability which is a bit of a slippery slope because it changes over time. In 2017, new guitar heroes are an endangered species. Many of the 60’s guitars are desirable because one of our guitar heroes played one. A red 64 ES-335 is the easiest vintage Gibson to sell because Eric Clapton played one. But, a 63 Gretsch Country Gentleman, as played George Harrison, is neither valuable nor easy to sell. While I would consider a 63 Country Gentleman to be a vintage guitar, it is not a particularly desirable one.  Plenty of guitar heroes played or play Stratocasters and they are certainly desirable because of that and they are good guitars. It makes sense that when they went downhill, the desirability went down as well. So, perhaps, the Stratocaster is the one that best proves the rule. A vintage guitar has to be old. It has to be desirable. It has to be good. That leaves me with this: How old? How desirable? How good?

It’s pretty subjective stuff and there will be plenty of disagreement. To me, good means great tone, playability and looks. Desirable means there will always be more buyers than there are guitars. Old means…I dunno. I think the 80’s were like only yesterday but they were 30 odd years ago. So, maybe the 80’s are ready to be vintage. You decide and let me know.

1984 Zemaitis Hummingbird. Very cool but maybe not old enough?
I would call it vintage but you might not.